US authorities are investigating whether some of those responsible for one of the American south’s most notorious mass lynchings are still alive, in an attempt to finally bring prosecutions over the brutal unsolved killings.
FBI agents questioned a man in Georgia who was among several in their 80s and 90s newly named in connection with the Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching of 1946 on a list given to the US Department of Justice by civil rights activists, he told the Guardian.
Speaking at his home in Monroe, 10 miles west of the lynching site, Charlie Peppers denied taking part in the killings of four African Americans who were tied up and shot 60 times by a white mob.
“Heck no,” said Peppers, 86, when asked if he was involved. “Back when all that happened, I didn’t even know where Moore’s Ford was.” Peppers, who was 18 at the time of the lynching, said: “The blacks are blaming people that didn’t even know what happened back then.”
A report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) published last week found at least 700 more lynchings than had previously been recorded in southern states, renewing calls from campaigners for any suspects still at large to be brought to justice before it is too late.
The Moore’s Ford incident, widely described as America’s last mass lynching, stands out as a particularly brutal case even in Georgia, where more lynchings were recorded between 1877 and 1950 than in any other state, according to the EJI study. The report was the result of almost five years of investigations into lynchings in 12 southern states.
No one was ever prosecuted for the killings on 25 July 1946 of two black couples in their 20s: George and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Dorothy and Roger Malcom. According to unconfirmed claims from the time that are now asserted by campaigners, Dorothy Malcom was heavily pregnant and her unborn baby was cut from her body by the attackers.
An outraged President Harry Truman ordered a federal investigation and rewards totalling $12,500 – worth more than $150,000 today – were offered for information leading to a conviction. A grand jury was convened and heard evidence for three weeks. Yet no indictments were brought for the killings, which have long been linked to the Ku Klux Klan.
However then-Georgia governor Roy Barnes reopened the state’s inquiry in 2000 and the FBI reopened its own case in 2007. Georgia state representative Tyrone Brooks, who leads an annual re-enactment of the lynching as part of a campaign for justice, said the absence of prosecutions still hurts black residents of the area.
“There is a lot of pain, a lot of frustration and a lot of disappointment,” said Brooks. “Because it has always said – like other cases have suggested more recently – that black lives don’t matter”.
Coroner WT Brown holds a piece of rope used in the lynching. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
Peppers was accused of being involved by his nephew, Wayne Watson. Video of Watson, 57, claiming in 2013 that Peppers and several other men from the area had spoken of their involvement in the killings was given to the US Department of Justice by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“All through my life, I heard them talk about the Moore’s Ford and the lynching,” said Watson, in an April 2013 interview. “I’m tired of it, when you go through life, and you’re living with lies.”
Watson alleged that several of the men he named were Klan members. When asked this week Peppers denied he is or ever was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Watson said he had previously given information on the lynching to the city police and was ignored.
Watson made his remarks to Benjamin Jealous, who was then the NAACP president. Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington Bureau director, told the Guardian this week that during a meeting he handed a DVD containing the video footage to Thomas Perez, who was then the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and is now the US Labor Secretary, and urged him to take action.
“We already knew it was true that some of them were still here, and still alive, but we just needed people who could name names,” said Edward Dubose, an NAACP national board member and former Georgia branch president, who has campaigned for many years on the issue.
Peppers said he was visited at his home by two FBI agents, one man and one woman, last year and was questioned for about 40 minutes. He said he asked them: “Why in the world are y’all bringing stuff up that happened 60 years ago. Why didn’t y’all do something about it then?” The male agent called Peppers a week later asking for further details of his family, he said.
The victims of the lynching, who were sharecroppers, were killed after Roger Malcom was bailed from Walton County Jail on charges of stabbing Barnette Hester, a 29-year-old white farmer. Hester was rumoured locally to be having an affair with Roger’s wife, Dorothy, according to Laura Wexler, the author of Fire In A Canebrake, a 2003 book on the killings.
The couples were seized by a crowd on a dirt road while being driven home in a truck by Loy Harrison, a white farmer who had paid to bail Malcom out of jail. They were beaten, dragged to a clearing beside the Apalachee River and shot. Harrison, who escaped unharmed and said he was ambushed, has been accused by civil rights activists of being a Klan member and helping to set up the lynching.
Investigators at the time reported difficulty in obtaining statements and evidence on the killings. A conspiracy of silence among the white residents of the area was blamed. Bullets and shell casings were recovered from trees and the surrounding area but little other evidence existed at the time.
The killing of George Dorsey, who was a second world war veteran, caused particular outrage. Eventually about 55 suspects or people of interest were identified. Several were called to testify to the grand jury but none was charged.
Loy Harrison, left, shows Sheriff JM Bond, centre and coroner WT Brown where four African-Americans were killed by a mob of white men on 25 July 1946, near Monroe, Georgia. Photograph: Rudolph Faircloth/AP
In July 2008 the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) said they had collected material from a home in Walton County that was being investigated further. Watson said in his interview that he had provided the tip-off for that raid.
Special Agent Stephen Emmett, a spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta field office, declined to discuss the case or Peppers’s questioning.
“We’re not going to be able to confirm or clarify any development that you’re describing,” said Emmett. “It’s still a pending investigation”.
The Department of Justice did not respond to several requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the GBI referred all inquiries to the FBI.
Watson told Jealous he had been shunned by members of his family after entering a relationship with a black woman. “I want it all over with, the racism,” he said.
Watson said in the video that he had spent time in jail. According to public records he was convicted in 1999 of obstructing a law enforcement officer. He could not be reached for comment. Two neighbours at his last known address said he had been evicted and was thought to now have no permanent home.